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The Beacon

The front desk at The Beacon, the new homeless day resource center, on East Washington Avenue in Madison.

Madison may not have a major panhandling problem, but there’s still a need to help the homeless connect to jobs, a city report found. 

Right now, there's no employment program in the community targeted at homeless individuals looking for work, said Sarah Lim, a community development specialist for the city and the author of the report. 

“We have a lot of people who are homeless. How do we connect them with employment opportunities?” said Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney. “What would that look like?’

Last year, several alders co-sponsored a resolution to investigate whether the city could use a “day jobs” program for panhandlers in the city. Such programs typically provide free transportation to a public or private “day job,” usually as part of a work crew.

The city Community Development Division compiled the “Day Jobs Report,” examining similar programs throughout the country, in Albuquerque, Denver, Chicago and Portland, Maine. Staff also conducted local interviews, surveys and focus groups with panhandlers, nonprofits and city employees.

They found that in the aftermath of the city’s anti-roadside panhandling ordinance, passed earlier this year, there aren’t actually that many consistent panhandlers in high-traffic areas. The ordinance outlawed standing in medians and approaching vehicles in intersections.

In the first two months after it was enacted, the police only had seven citations for infractions, with four belonging to the same person, the report said.

Plus, high-traffic panhandlers are “often transient,” the report said, and most of the individuals interviewed said they only panhandle for four hours a day or less.

“Given that fact, driving a van at a certain time period to pick people up would likely reach only a small number of people — those who are actively panhandling at that time,” the report said.

But a similar program could prove useful for homeless populations who would often otherwise struggle to find stable employment, it said. There about 324 chronically homeless individuals in the area around The Beacon, the city and county’s new day resource center for the homeless, according to the Homeless Services Consortium.

These homeless are not accessing existing job services, Lim said. Barriers like eligibility requirements and a lack of transportation can stand in the way, and some may struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues.

They may sometimes hold temporary jobs, panhandle, or engage in criminal activity, according to the report. The majority of Madison panhandlers who were interviewed said they would rather work than panhandle.

Contrary to its name, the study found that “day jobs” are likely not the most effective way to promote long-term positive employment outcomes. The report cited a 2010 study in Michigan that found that individuals placed in day jobs or temporary jobs were more likely to continue temporary work (as opposed to permanent work) and struggle with unemployment. 

Instead, city staff suggested a “transitional jobs” program, which would provide supportive services and skills training along with a wage-paying job. The report suggested that Madison adopt an individual placement approach, rather than utilizing work crews, to give individuals a wide range of options and provide a closer “real-world” work experience. Direct-hire jobs would be preferable to temporary placements, it said. The program would require a full-time employment coordinator.

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The report recommended paying participants $10 an hour, and suggested considering a subsidy of $700 a month for the first few months of participation, to encourage participants to continue the program. The report noted that $700 is similar to the cash subsidy a family could receive under the state’s Wisconsin Works (W-2) program, which is not available to adults without children.

Staff recommended that the program be run through a nonprofit organization. It suggested a one-year pilot program targeted for the homeless downtown.

The Beacon just opened this October, and the report suggested using it as a base for the program. Harrington-McKinney called the service model of The Beacon “amazing,” and wants to build on the employment services the center offers. Visitors can apply for jobs in the computer lab at the center, and partner agencies will be on hand starting in January to help clients as they look for employment.

“So the next step is, how do we take the opportunities and the resources (at The Beacon), and how do we tie that into the Day Jobs Report?” Harrington-McKinney said.

Lim said any next steps will be determined by the City Council. She’s already presented the findings at several city committees. The City County Homeless Issues Committee recommended not investing in a jobs program now, but rather increasing investment in “housing first” programs.

But outside of a day jobs program, the city is also looking at larger efforts to connect the homeless to employment, Lim said. As an example, she cited the city’s recent Request For Proposal for an employment program, which emphasized serving people with more barriers, including the homeless.

Lim will present the findings of the report at the Nov. 21 City Council meeting.

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